Written for a Mother's Day challenge at The Burping Troll which asked what kinds of stories mothers in Middle Earth might tell to their children.
In a small stone room in a small stone house, a single lamp cast its glow. Wrapped in a halo of golden light was a child in a cozy bed and a woman in a comfortable chair. Beyond the lamplight shadows almost hid the tall man watching from the doorway. Yet though night clung thick and chill to the lands of ancient Arnor, here there was only warmth.
"Tell me a story, Mama," a small drowsy voice said. "I want to hear about Papa and the elf."
Tiny laugh lines crinkled the corners of the woman's grey eyes as she tucked blankets under a small boyish chin. "Dilly, you should let your father tell the story."
"But you tell it better. Please?"
"Very well. But then you must go to sleep." The woman slanted a wry smile over her shoulder, as her fingers caressed her son's smooth little cheek.
Even in this poor light she could see the glint of humor in her husband's eyes. Those eyes were mirrored in the boyish face on the pillow before her, grey as the sea with long dark lashes, and laughter lurking in them like flecks of sunlight. One day these sweet features, molded so gently in the curves of childhood, would share the father's cheekbones and the father's lines of care. But for now this was her littlest one, still small enough to wish for bedtime tales.
"I will tell you a tale of long ago, of warriors and brave, brave men." As her voice slid into a familiar cadence the boy settled deeper into his blankets. "One day a young lad was hunting in the far woods when he found the tracks of a mighty stag. The winter was nigh and he knew this stag would mean meat for the family in the long months to come. He thought of how proud his father would be and so he began to follow."
"Was he alone?"
"Oh yes, my son, he was quite alone."
"Was he afraid, way off in the woods like that?"
"No, he was not, for he was a Ranger's son and he had been taught to be brave."
"Like me!" Grey eyes twinkled with mischief.
"Just so." The woman smiled, her fingers tracing the soft curve of his brow. "Thus with great care and patience he stalked the stag, trying very hard to remember everything his father had taught him. And then - there it was. In the twilight of a misty glade the stag stood tall and strong. The lad readied his bow and stepped forward to shoot - but then the stag leaped away! Instantly the hunter sprang up in pursuit, for he would not lose this prize. But all of a sudden the ground dropped away and down, down he fell. Crack, was the sound as he landed on the bottom, so he knew his leg was broken."
She leaned towards the intent little face watching her, her voice lowered to whispered intensity. "And he lay there alone, in a faraway wood, as darkness and night drew near."
Now the boy's eyes were round as silver coins as he stared in breathless anxiety. "What happened then?"
"Why, he thought of his mother, of course, and how worried she would be. And he thought of his father who told him to always be careful in the woods. Then finally he wondered how he would ever get home, for his leg hurt too terribly to walk. As the long night passed he laid there and worried, and finally … he fell asleep."
"Wasn't he cold?"
"Why, I suppose he was. But he was very tired and he hurt a great deal, so it was better to sleep while he could."
"And then what?"
"He woke in the dark and looked at the trees, and he thought he saw the moon coming up. But then he remembered ... there was no moon."
A soft gasp shaped the boy's mouth in a round O, his fingers gripping hers tightly. "Why not?"
"Because this was the time of the new moon, when the night is dark and only the stars come out. But ..." The woman smiled as she watched the play of imagination across her son's face. "He saw something that made all his fears go away. He saw ... an elf!"
"I want to see an elf!"
"Perhaps one day you shall." The laugh lines deepened beside her eyes. "But this night it was the young hunter who saw the elf, as it walked from the shadowy woods. The elf came and knelt down, and with hands as light as thistledown the elf touched his poor leg, so that all the pain went away."
"And the elf sang to him, didn't it, Mama?"
"Yes, child. The elf sang. And while he sang the young hunter fell asleep, and dreamed of moonlight and stars. When he awoke … where should he be? He was right at his own front gate."
"The elf brought him home!" The boy's features lit with an exultant grin.
"Just so," the mother smiled, and gently tapped his nose. "Ever since then, however, he has been very careful in the woods. A Ranger can't always count on an elf to come and save him."
"No, Mama." A gentle soberness shadowed the boy's face. "Rangers have to be strong enough to save other people, instead. I'm going to be a Ranger one day."
"Perhaps you shall." A deeper voice spoke kindly as the father stepped into the room. A slightly lopsided smile warmed his rugged countenance as he knelt between his wife's chair and son's bed. "But first you must sleep, so you will be rested enough to grow up big and strong."
Instantly the boy's smile returned. "Like you, Papa."
The man chuckled and leaned forward so small arms could encircle his neck. Stubbled cheek pressed to silken childish one, and the woman reached to stroke her husband's bowed head.
"Good night, Papa," the small voice said.
"Good night, Anardil."
In a small stone room in a small stone house, a single lamp cast its glow. Wrapped in a halo of golden light were a youth in a narrow bed and a woman in a wooden chair. Beyond the lamplight shadows almost hid the tall man watching from the doorway.
"I'm all right, Mama," a strained voice said, its tones wavering between a boyish treble and deeper notes. "Just let me sleep."
Worry lines crimped the corners of the woman's grey eyes as she tucked blankets about her son's shoulders. "If you would let me give you some more tea for the pain ...."
Strong young hands seized the blanket edges and sullenly shoved them down. "I don't need any more of that vile tea."
"It will help you sleep, Anardil," she insisted. "You won't heal fast if you -."
"For pity's sake, Mother!" The slash of his words struck with almost physical sharpness. "It was only a scratch! I do not need you coddling me!"
Her shoulders stiffened as her lips thinned. "I scarcely call thirteen stitches from a filthy orc blade a scratch."
The unyielding hardness suddenly in his youthful gaze unnerved her. "I am mended as neatly as a torn shirt, Mama. Not everyone was so lucky. Let me be."
As he turned his face away his storm-grey eyes resolutely closed. The long lashes rested on pale cheeks, but it was no longer the soft face of a child. Though he was barely old enough to shave an erratic and weedy beard, manhood lurked in the new angles of nose and jaw. She could not help, however, that her fingers flitted like wounded things above the bedding which hid the bandages beneath. His hands did not respond, though, his fists instead clenching the blankets in brittle silence.
She rose at her husband's gentle summons, knowing she left her heart with this still, lanky form.
"'Tis not the physical wound," the father said softly. His arm wrapped around her, drawing her out into the hall. "He saw two of our men die in the attack. That is a bitter thing for a lad to see. He needs your love to see him through."
"I know," she breathed. As her strength bled away she let her head fall to the shelter of his shoulder. "But I can't do anything. I can't even hold his hand. And that is the hardest to bear."
"Give him time, my love. He speaks harshly only because he is trying to be strong."
"I know." Her voice was muffled against her husband's solid warmth. "And I know he will be fortunate indeed, if innocence is all he loses. He is a Ranger's son and soon to be a Ranger himself."
His voice tickled softly in her hair. "Do you regret that?"
"No." She shook her head and drew back to study his solemn face, lifting one hand to lightly trace its beloved lines. "I regret nothing. But I miss my baby. Sometimes … I just miss my baby."
In a small stone room in a small stone house, a single lamp cast its glow. Wrapped in a halo of golden light were a young man in a bed and a woman in a solitary chair. Beyond the lamplight shadows loomed and the rest of the house was silent.
"Mmph," a drowsy voice murmured, but it was merely a sound from troubled sleep.
Lines of age and care crinkled the corners of the woman's grey eyes as she settled the blankets a little higher on her son's shoulders. She remembered a time when her voice alone was enough to ease his slumber. Those days, alas, were far gone.
He scarcely fit in the boyhood bed he now so seldom used. The covers were ridged by long bones and sturdy limbs, his shoulders as broad as his father's had been. She often marveled how much he favored his sire, from the way he walked and stood to the puckish, one-sided grin that sometimes graced his face. At rest he was still clearly a young man, but it had been over thirty years since he squalled a babe's first breath.
"Oh, child," she whispered. "Where do the years go?"
One of his hands lay curled loosely beside the pillow; a man's hands, a Ranger's hands, corded with strong sinews and bones. Yet her fingers still remembered a child's soft grip and the play of light on rounded cheeks. Now she noted a haze of stubble on his jaw, and the emptiness in her heart yawned anew.
Abruptly the hand clenched then relaxed as her son stirred with a lazy sigh. His head turned on the pillow and he frowned in the lamplight.
"Mama, you should be sleeping."
"I will soon. I thought I heard you moving, and feared you were uncomfortable." Her smile was not as steady as she would have wished. "Or maybe I just wanted to watch you sleep."
He reached and closed his fingers around her own, his calluses warm against her skin, and drew her hand to his chest. "You're missing Papa again, aren't you?"
"Yes." She bowed her head, studying the strange reversal of her hand lying thin and frail while his grip was firm with strength. "I always will."
"Me, too." Grey eyes met grey in wistful understanding, then his lips quirked. "I suppose my showing up on the doorstep with new holes for you to mend was not much help."
Her smile found strength as she patted their clasped hands. "I would far rather you come home for mending, than try to play the healer yourself. What some people call medicine simply astounds me."
"If you're referring to Bob's claim of using a horse manure poultice, I assure you that was pure fabrication."
With a stern look she squeezed his fingers and let go. "I should certainly hope so."
They chuckled together and then were quiet a space. She watched as his thoughts drifted somewhere afar, eyes open but fixed on memories beyond these walls, of which she was no part. Her son went now a-ranging with his brethren of the sword, and mending was all she could do.
At last she said, "Elrith asked about you not long ago."
He blinked back into the here and now. "Aye. How does she fare?"
"Very well. She and her husband are expecting their third child."
"That is good. They are a fine family."
The mother paused then said, "She would have had you, if you had only asked."
Her son's expression was instantly that of his father, when she had prodded a point best left alone. "I will take no wife only to make her a widow, Mama. I've told you this. Not in these times, with dark rumors afoot and foul things prowling the lands." One side of his mouth lifted in a knowing grin. "Besides, my sisters keep you amply supplied in grandchildren."
"Oh, you!" She swatted at him, but carefully, and his white teeth flashed in a grin.
And he grew still once more, drifting into the strange silence that had become so much a part of him. She should let her son sleep and seek her own rest, but she was loath to abandon the rare pleasure of his company. In the quiet she studied him, how lamplight and shadow painted his face, highlighting the strong nose and jaw, the clear brow beneath its tousle of black hair.
"Remember when you used to tell me stories?" he asked.
His clear gaze met hers as she swallowed her surprise. "Of course."
"Did an elf really save Papa as a lad?"
"Yes. Yes, he truly did. I remember the excitement after his parents found him at the gate. It was all anyone could talk about."
"Tell me that story again. Please?"
The surge of emotion that burst within her breast was nearly more than she could bear. A deep breath and practiced smile surely concealed her discomfiture, but her heart both wept and sang. The grey eyes that watched her were at once boy and man, and she reached to caress her son's cheek.
"Very well," she said. "But then you must go to sleep."
"I will tell you a tale of long ago, of warriors and brave, brave men." As her voice slid into its familiar cadence her son settled into his blankets. "One day a young lad was hunting in the far woods when he found the tracks of a mighty stag. The winter was nigh and he knew this stag would mean meat for the family in the long months to come. He thought of how proud his father would be and so he began to follow …"
Thank you, Sevilodorf, for the idea that sparked it all!
Author's Note: The name of the child/man 'Anardil' is simply borrowed from the Appendixes, and is not intended to be any Tolkien figure. I feel certain that ordinary people of Middle Earth sometimes borrowed noble names for their children, just as people do in our world.